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SUMO: Aki Basho Wrap-Up

Holy maneki neko! What a tournament that was, ne? I think it’s pretty safe to say that NO ONE predicted the drama that just played out over the past two weeks. Goodness knows that my predictions were WAY off target! But then, who COULD predict that Goeido, who for the past two years has been the weakest of the ozeki, would bounce back from his kadoban status to have a perfect 15–0 record and win a zensho yusho (something that had NEVER been done in the centuries-long history of sumo)?

Just as unlikely, though, is that Kisenosato, after performing at yokozuna level all year long, would falter in this, his greatest chance to finally win a tournament (since Hakuho was absent) and get the yokozuna promotion he has sought for so long. Indeed, with Goeido’s win yesterday, we have the almost unfathomable situation that Kisenosato is the ONLY current ozeki who HASN’T won a yusho . . . despite the fact that he’s clearly the strongest among them (and generally performs stronger than yokozuna Kakuryu), and has been for two years or more. But the standards are clear. It doesn’t matter how strong a rikishi you are, you can’t be a yokozuna until you’ve won a couple of tournaments. It’s just such a weird turn of events that if Goeido has another dominant performance in November, he could succeed where Kisenosato hasn’t been able to.

The most disappointing performance of the tournament was certainly Terunofuji’s, who for the second time this year had double-digit losses. Now, clearly, the big guy is injured and won’t give himself time to heal. More problematic, though, is that he’s publicly denying that injury has anything to do with it. In his post-basho interview, Terunofuji said, “I lost because I was weak. My training was insufficient.” Now, it’s entirely possible that he’s just spouting the macho crap that rikishi are supposed to say to the press. But if he really DOES believe that, his career is going to crash and burn inside two years. He’s hurt, plain and simple, and his body needs time to recuperate.

Of course, Terunofuji isn’t the only rikishi with that problem. I hope that Hakuho, Tochinoshin, Ikioi, Osunaarashi, and yes, even my much maligned Ichinojo all spend most of the time between now and November’s Kyushu Basho healing. Heck, I’d even be okay with them skipping another tournament in the name of long-term health. I want 2017 to be filled with all my favorite rikishi fighting at the top of their abilities!

Over the next few weeks I have a few small sumo related posts I want to make . . . but for the most part this is going to put the topic to bed until the banzuke for November is announced sometime around Halloween.

Matta ne!

SUMO: Aki Basho 2016 Senshuraku [Final Day] (Day 15)

Wow. What a crazy fortnight it’s been! Here we are at Day 15, senshuraku [the final day] of the 2016 Aki Basho. And while the yusho [tournament championship] has already been decided (what, didn’t you watch yesterday’s matches?), there are still a few matters of business left to resolve.

First and foremost is the question of whether Goeido can add to his glory by becoming the first rikishi EVER in the history of sumo to enter a tournament kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] and finish it with a zensho yusho [no loss tournament championship]. The only one standing between him and that bit of sumo history is ozeki Kotoshogiku. The funny thing is, if Goeido DOES get that record, it’s one that Hakuho can never attain. (Take THAT Mr. Greatest Of All Time!)

Looking over the whole banzuke [ranking sheet] there are only three rikishi coming into today’s action with 7–7 records . . . the rest have already decided their fate in terms of make- or kachi-koshi [majority of losses or wins]. The greatest pressure is on M15 Kyokushuho, who will be demoted to the Juryo Division if he loses to M13 Toyohibiki and ends up make-koshi. M7 Shohozan will face M15 Tokushoryu, who already is make-koshi and almost certainly headed to Juryo in November. And finally, M7 Ikioi has to fight for his kachikoshi against komusubi Kaisei (I guess that’s the price for being a popular rikishi . . . the TV audience wants to see you in one of the final matches, and that means a more dangerous opponent).

Also, the Kyokai [Sumo Association] has announced which rikishi will be receiving special prizes based on their performances during the basho. These special prizes can be handed out, but aren’t required . . . so they really have to be earned. This tournament, a few rikishi stepped up and had really phenomenal performances.

  • Shukun-sho [Outstanding Performance Prize]—This is given to a maegashira-ranked rikishi who had a winning record including wins over yokozuna and ozeki. It is the prize most frequently left unawarded. In this case, though, Okinoumi surely earned it by beating two yokozuna and three ozeki. There was thought around nakabi [the middle day; Day 8] that he might earn multiple awards because he was doing so well . . . but his collapse in Week 2 left this as the only one he truly deserved.
  • Kanto-sho [Fighting Spirit Prize]—Sekiwake is one of the toughest ranks on the banzuke, and this was Takayasu’s first tournament there. Still he’s managed to secure double-digit wins already . . . and is hoping to add to that today. That shows some real fighting spirit.
  • Gin-sho [Technique Prize]—This ostensibly is for a rikishi who uses an especially wide range of kimarite [winning techniques] during the tournament, but sometimes it’s treated more as a “style prize” for being cool under pressure. Endo has not only racked up a lot of wins (twelve with one more bout still to go), he’s done so using five different kimarate including a couple of unusual ones (sukuinage [beltless arm throw] against Chiyoshoma on Day 4, and tottari [arm bar throw] against Shohozan on Day 13)

Now, having said all that, let’s get to the feature matches.

J1 Ura (5–9) vs. J3 Azumaryu (6–8)—I’ve talked a little about Ura before. The sumo pundits say that despite his lackluster performance this basho he’s someone to watch out for in 2017 . . . and this match gives you an idea why.  (1:25)

M13 Amakaze (4-10) vs. J1 Osunaarashi (6–7–1)—Despite pulling a groin muscle on Day 5, Egyptian rikishi Osunaarashi (one of my favorites) missed only two days and now is finishing the basho with an “up match.” He’s already make-koshi, so he’ll be down in Juryo again in November, but hopefully he’ll take time off and let ALL his injuries heal. I very much am looking forward to seeing him return to the Makuuchi division in 2017. (2:56)

M9 Nishikigi (8–6) vs. M14 Endo (12–2)—The yusho may be out of Endo’s reach, but if he wins today he’ll finish the basho in sole possession of second place (quite a feather in his cap) and do so with a 13–2 record, which often is the record of the person who DOES take the yusho. Basically, he’s already had a terrific basho, but this is his chance to put a decisive capper on it. (3:15)

Komusubi Kaisei (5–9) vs. M7 Ikioi (7–7)—Kaisei is make-koshi already, so he’s going to be demoted from komusubi next basho . . . but this is his chance to finish on a strong note and deny Ikioi the final win he needs to get kachi-koshi. For his part, Ikioi has had a rough tournament, having started it with a sore back and just never seeming to get the break he needed. A win today will give him a small promotion on the banzuke and a positive note to carry him through the two months until November’s tournament. (9:45)

Ozeki Goeido (14–0) vs. ozeki Kotoshogiku (9–5)—At the start of this basho, both Goeido and Kotoshogiku were kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion]. Now here we are on Day 15, they both are kachikoshi, and Goeido is on the verge of doing something no kadoban ozeki has ever done. It seems only fitting that Kotoshogiku is his opponent. (12:15)

SUMO: Aki Basho 2016 (Day 14)

It’s Day 14 of the Aki Basho, and everything’s on the line today. Goeido’s win yesterday over Harumafuji means he still has a perfect record (13–0), still has a two win lead over his nearest competitor (M14 Endo), and only has two matches left to fight. If Endo loses or Goeido wins, the yusho [tournament championship] will go to Goeido.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t think there was any way that Goeido would beat yokozuna Harumafuji. And it looked like he was in real trouble. But at the edge of the dohyo, he pulled his favorite kubinage [neck throw] and turned the tables at the final moment. He has taken control of his destiny and manhandled it into the shape he wants . . . and that shape is looking more and more like a zensho yusho [no loss tournament championship]. Today he fights M6 Tamawashi, which is a bit of a surprise to me (since he hasn’t yet fought komusubi Kaisei), and then tomorrow he will face ozeki Kotoshogiku. It seems next to impossible that Goeido will lose both those matches (in fact, it seems highly unlikely that he’ll lose either), but with sumo you never know what will happen . . . so we’ll just have to wait and see.

M14 Endo is now the only rikishi remaining with an 11–2 record. He beat M7 Shohozan with a neat tottari [arm bar throw] reversal at the edge of the ring. Meanwhile, sekiwake Takayasu lost to M5 Mitakeumi in a hard-fought bout, and yokozuna Harumafuji lost to Goeido himself, leaving Endo as the only rikishi with even a mathematical chance of tying Goeido and forcing a playoff on Sunday.

M1 Okinoumi (7–6) vs. M8 Kotoyuki (9–4)—Okinoumi started the basho wonderfully, but now has lost five straight matches and STILL hasn’t secured his kachi-koshi [majority of wins]. You might think that giving him a match against an opponent ranked M8 is a gift, but that opponent is Kotoyuki, which means that this should be a tough match. (4:25)

M4 Myogiryu (4–9) vs. komusubi Tochiozan (6–7)—Tochiozan has had a tough tournament, but he’s fighting to hold off make-koshi [majority of losses] so that he can retain his komusubi rank in November. Myogiryu has already gotten make-koshi, but he’s trying to avoid double-digit losses and prevent himself from sliding too far down the banzuke [ranking sheet] for the next basho. (6:05)

Sekiwake Takayasu (10–3) vs. M14 Endo (11–2)—This is the first match that could decide the yusho. If Takayasu beats Endo, it’s all over—ozeki Goeido’s tournament victory is assured. And Takayasu has a lot to fight for. He wants to get at least eleven wins so that he’s still on course for a possible promotion to ozeki if he performs well in Kyushu in November. Still, despite the difference in their current ranks, the fact of the matter is that Endo has the lead 5–3 in their all-time head-to-head matches. (6:35)

Ozeki Goeido (13–0) vs. M6 Tamawashi (9–4)—This match is the real deal. If Goeido wins, he secures the yusho, plain and simple. Tamawashi is fighting very well this basho, but he’s not really in the same class as Goeido. I think the Kyokai [sumo association] scheduled this match with the thought that Goeido would certainly lose to Harumafuji, so they gave him an easy Saturday opponent in hopes of setting up a very dramatic Sunday confrontation with Kotoshogiku. Not that it really matters. Goeido is seeming like a man of destiny this basho. I don’t think there’s anyone left in the mix who is likely to beat him (but komusubi Kaisei would present a better challenge). (8:05)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (10–3) vs. ozeki Kisenosato (9–4)—If you’d told me two weeks ago that the basho would be decided by one match on Day 14 and showed me the pairings, I’d have bet the ranch that THIS was going to be the decisive bout. As it is, this is just a formality, though don’t tell that to the rikishi. This is their sixtieth head-to-head meeting, and for competitors like these there are no “meaningless” fights. (10:15)

SUMO: Aki Basho 2016 (Day 13)

It’s Day 13 of the Aki Basho and we’re heading into the final weekend. Ozeki Goeido continues to be unbeaten, and leads his nearest competitors by two victories. He faces yokozuna Harumafuji today, and if he wins that match I don’t think there’s any way that he can be stopped.

The math is clear, if Goeido wins two of his remaining matches, he’ll have locked up the yusho [tournament championship]. But the truth of the matter is that, given the way he’s been fighting, Harumafuji is the only person left on his schedule that he has any reason to fear. Of course, the REAL fear is that even one loss will shake his confidence or just put a seed of doubt in his mind that will make him vulnerable to opponents like komusubi Kaisei and ozeki Kotoshogiku (the rikishi he’s most likely to meet on days 14 and 15). But if the yokozuna doesn’t plant that first seed of doubt (and keep himself amongst the contenders two wins back), there’s almost no chance that Goeido will lose to BOTH those other opponents.

If it seems oddly as though I’ve been rooting against Goeido in these posts, focusing on what it will take to defeat him rather than what he has to do to win, I suppose that’s because I kind of have been. Goeido is not my favorite rikishi, mainly because for most of the last two years he’s been a weak ozeki who has spent most tournaments hovering right around the break-even point. He’s been kadoban four times during that period—including THIS BASHO—and he’s never been seriously in the hunt for a yusho. Basically, he hadn’t earned my respect, and there were many other rikishi I’d rather see hoist the Emperor’s Cup, most notably ozeki Kisenosato, who HAS performed at yokozuna-like levels for most of this year.

But as we roll into final weekend, I have to say that Goeido certainly HAS performed like a strong ozeki throughout this whole tournament, and he has EARNED to lead he’s holding on to. In fact, no one else in anywhere on the banzuke [ranking sheet] has put in a performance that is fully deserving of the championship (though Harumafuji was in the mix until his most recent loss to Takayasu). At this point, my biggest “concern” is that Goeido finish strong . . . that he boldly WINS the yusho, and doesn’t stumble and end up taking it because no one else is left to challenge him for it. I could accept Kisenosato or even Harumafuji winning through that route—they’ve paid their long term dues. Goeido . . . not so much.

Today’s feature matches include:

M7 Shohozan (7–5) vs. M14 Endo (10–2)—Endo is hanging tough. He’s one of only three rikishi with a reasonable chance to win the yusho. Of course, today is the day when they start pitting him against higher quality opponents, this time in the person of Shohozan, who is on the verge of kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and so is very motivated to secure a win.  (5:10)

M2 Tochinoshin (3–9) vs. M4 Myogiryu (4–8)—Both of these rikishi are already make-koshi [majority of losses] and are fighting to mitigate how far down the banzuke they’ll fall for November’s tournament. That having been said, they’re also both rikishi with a great deal of talent and pride, and Tochinoshin is one of my favorite sumotori. Sometimes the best matches happen when the only thing at stake is pride. (6:06)

M1 Okinoumi (7–5) vs. M5 Aoiyama (7–5)—Okinoumi started the tournament with six straight wins, but now has had five straight losses. At one point there was talk about him getting multiple special prizes after the tournament, now he’s just hoping to secure kachi-koshi [majority of wins]. Okinoumi seems to have lost his mental focus and without that, he’s unlikely to beat anyone. On the other hand, Aoiyama has had an up and down basho, looking slow and plodding one day, then dancing nimbly along the tawara [rice bales that form the edge of the ring] the next. The question here is which version of each rikishi will enter the dohyo today. (6:35)

Sekiwake Takayasu (10–2) vs. M5 Mitakeumi (8–4)—Both of these rikishi are having particularly good tournaments. Takayasu already has double-digit wins in his first time ranked at sekiwake, leading to talk of a possible ozeki promotion if he can do it again in November. On the other hand, Mitakeumi is also already kachi-koshi and hoping to earn a promotion to M1 or possibly even komusubi in November. Takayasu, of course, is also still in the yusho hunt along with Harumafuji and Endo. They’ve both got a lot to fight for, and I expect that means an exciting bout. (9:20)

Ozeki Kotoshogiku (7–5) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (4–8)—There’s nothing of particular importance in this bout of two faltering ozeki . . . except that it’s Kotoshogiku’s best remaining chance to secure kachi-koshi and erase his kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] status. Having already secured make-koshi, Terunofuji is going to be kadoban in November, so the best that he can hope for is to not injure himself further in the remaining three matches. (10:10)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (10–2) vs. ozeki Goeido (12–0)—This is it . . . the match that will basically decide through what lens we’ll view the rest of the coming weekend. If Harumafuji wins, then there’s will only be a single loss between him and the leader, and a playoff on Sunday is still a very real possibility. If Goeido wins, then Harumafuji will be out of contention and Goeido will only need one more win to cement his hold on the yusho. (11:15)

SUMO: Aki Basho 2016 (Day 12)

As Day 12 of the Aki Basho dawns, there are a few small changes on the leaderboard, but a terrifically huge change in the state of the race for the yusho [tournament championship]. Goeido remains alone at the top of the pile with a perfect 11–0 record, and three rikishi are tied for second place—Harumafuji, Takayasu, and Endo. However, those three are tied with a record of 9–2, giving Goeido a two-win lead with only four matches left to fight.

 The big match yesterday pitted ozeki Kisenosato against ozeki Goeido. I’ll admit, I thought Kisenosato was going to beat him and do it fairly handily, throwing the whole yusho race into overdrive. And the match started out that way. But Kisenosato failed to put his opponent away when given an opportunity, and Goeido seized the moment (quite literally) quickly rushing Kisenosato out of the ring. The result is that Goeido remains the leader, and Kisenosato is essentially out of the running (and out of luck in his hopes for a yokozuna promotion).

 The second biggest match of the day was yokozuna Harumafuji against sekiwake Takayasu. It was a bruising, slap-fest (as matches between these two tend to be), but it seemed like Harumafuji had it more or less in hand. After exchanging thrusts and blows, he had his opponent backed up to the ring’s edge and was ready to force him out . . . but the yokozuna uncharacteristically rushed the attack, leaning forward rather than stepping up, and Takayasu took advantage by twisting even as he was falling. The final result was Harumafuju belly flopping to the ground clearly ahead of Takayasu.

 So where does that leave Goeido?

 As long as he doesn’t lose two of his remaining matches, he will win the tournament. And even if he does lose two, it will greatly depend on WHICH two opponents manage to beat him. In the final four days Goeido is certain to face yokozuna Harumafuji, yokozuna Kakuryu, and ozeki Kotoshogiku, with komusubi Kaisei likely rounding out the schedule. If he manages beat Harumafuji (giving the yokozuna a third loss), the yusho is absolutely sewn up. Honestly, I think it’s all but sewn up right now, because the way Goeido is fighting right now, I don’t think any of the other three really have a hope of beating him. (Though I suppose I have to leave open the possibility of henkas and other “trick plays” that circumvent the quality of sumo Goeido has shown us lately.)

 Let’s look at it the other way, though. What are the chances that Goeido can beat all of his remaining opponents and become the first ozeki in decades to come into a basho kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] and come out hoisting the emperor’s cup . . . and the first in even longer (perhaps ever, I’m not clear on the records) to do so with a zensho yusho [perfect record tournament championship]. At this point, I’d say the chances are pretty good. As I mentioned above, if Goeido stays focused and fighting at the level he’s shown us, Harumafuji is the only one who has a reasonable chance to beat him.

 With all that said, let’s look at today’s top matches.

 M14 Endo (9–2) vs. M5 Mitakeumi (8–3)—Endo’s loss yesterday leaves him two behind the leader just as his schedule is about to get more challenging. Today he faces Mitakeumi who has looked solid this basho and is giving the appearance of a rikishi who’ll be a force to be reckoned with in upcoming tournaments. Basically, he’s in the same spot that Endo himself was about two years ago. Injuries and size have held Endo back from fulfilling that promise (at least so far), but it would be a big boost to his future prospects if he can overcome this “shadow of tournaments past.” On the other side, it would be very auspicious for Mitakeumi if he could beat Endo and metaphorically say “I will do better than he did.” (4:40)

 M3 Takanoiwa (4–7) vs. M2 Shodai (4–7)—Two rikishi on the verge of make-koshi [majority of losses]. After this bout, one of them will be guaranteed a demotion in November, while the other will still have a tenuous chance to pull out a kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and a promotion for the Kyushu Basho. Desperate times makes for exciting sumo. (6:00)

 Sekiwake Takayasu (9–2) vs. M1 Yoshikaze (4–7)—Takayasu is fresh off his upset over Harumafuji (though no kin-boshi [gold star award] for him because he’s a sekiwake, not a rank-and-file maegashira. He MUST win if he wants to have even a shadow of a hope of contending for the yusho, plus he’s pushing hard for double-digit wins to bolster his chance of a promotion to ozeki in the relatively near future. Meanwhile, Yoshikaze has had a tough basho and is on the verge of make-koshi. He MUST win all of his remaining matches if he wants a shot at being promoted back into the sanyaku ranks. (7:15)

 Ozeki Kisenosato (8–3) vs. komusubi Kaisei (4–7)—Kisenosato’s loss yesterday leaves him with nothing to fight for . . . except ozeki pride. In fact, I think the next four days are going to tell us a lot about his character. Can he shake off his disappointment and perform well for no reason other than because that’s what an ozeki is supposed to do? Does he have the inner strength, poise, and determination to ACT like a yokozuna, even though he’s not going to become one just yet? If so, I think the Kyokai [Sumo Association] will notice and say nice things about him in the press. If not, they’ll probably be more disparaging, saying that he’s “proven that he’s not up to the responsibility of being a yokozuna at this time.” Kaisei, on the other hand, is fighting to avoid make-koshi and keep alive the hopes of retaining his sanyaku rank in November. (8:40)

 Yokozuna Harumafuji (9–2) vs. ozeki Kotoshogiku (7–4)—Harumafuji must be very disappointed with himself after yesterday’s loss. He had the advantage and he let it slip away. That bodes poorly for Kotoshogiku, because Harumafuji rarely performs poorly two days in a row, and the ozeki has been performing poorly all tournament. Indeed, he’s kadoban and still hasn’t secured his kachi-koshi. Doing so with a win over a yokozuna would show a lot of style . . . but I don’t know that he’s got enough gas left in the tank to challenge Harumafuji. (9:47)

 Ozeki Goeido (11–0) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (8–3)—Goeido beat the top ozeki yesterday. Can he beat a yokozuna today? He’s got an edge because Kakuryu is fighting more like an ozeki than a yokozuna these days. In particular, Kakuryu has had a very disappointing Aki Basho, though he’s secured his kachi-koshi (something that shouldn’t even be a question for a yokozuna). I have to say, I expect Goeido to win this one . . . but at the top ranks, you never know what’s going to happen. (10:17)

SUMO: Aki Basho 2016 (Day 11)

It’s Day 11 of the Aki Basho, and with only five matches to go for each rikishi, ozeki Goeido remains atop the leaderboard with a perfect 10–0 record. Yokozuna Harumafuji and M14 Endo are still one win off the pace at 9–1, and just three rikishi—ozeki Kisenosato, sekiwake Takayasu, and M8 Kotoyuki—a loss behind them at 8–2. At this stage, it seems all but certain that one of these six rikishi will take the yusho [tournament championship] . . . and there’s still a pretty good chance that some subset of them will wind up in a playoff on Sunday to decide which one will hoist the Emperor’s Cup.

 Kisenosato’s win yesterday knocked fellow ozeki Kotoshogiku out of the running. It also leaves Koto still needing one more win to secure his kachi-koshi and overcome his kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] status. He should have little problem getting it . . . but until he does, it will be a nervous time for the man who started the year by being the first Japanese-born rikishi to win a tournament since 2006, but has had a fairly disappointing remainder of the year. On the other hand, it leaves Kisenosato still in the midst of the yusho hunt, and today he squares off against the leader, Goeido.

 Speaking of Goeido, he looked strong in his win over floundering ozeki Terunofuji. In a post-match interview, Terunofuji said that he is basically writing off this basho which, if true, means that he’s simply accepted that he’s going to be kadoban again in November. Here’s hoping that he gets his body and his mind in better shape before then.

 One of the most interesting rikishi in the hunt is Takayasu. This is his debut tournament at the rank of sekiwake—one of the toughest in the sport—and he seems on his way to double-digit wins. Since he did the same in July’s Nagoya Basho (finishing there with an 11–4 record), that will put him in a position to be up for an ozeki promotion if he can do it again in November’s Kyushu Basho. In order to get promoted to ozeki, a rikishi must get 33 wins over the course of three consecutive tournaments. This technically means that if Takayasu can win out and finish the basho with a 13–2 record, he could be considered for a promotion immediately (he had a 9–6 record in May’s Natsu Basho). But I doubt the Kyokai [Sumo Association] would promote him based on that since his rank in May was only M5.

 Both Endo and Kotoyuki have an edge, at least for the next match or two, because they are ranked so far down the banzuke [ranking sheet] and are still facing lower ranked opponents. Of course, if they stay in the hunt, the Kyokai is certain to fill their final weekend with matches against upper maegashira opponents . . . and maybe even a komusubi or sekiwake. But both Endo and Kotoyuki have been ranked at those levels before, so they’ll still have the experience that will allow them fighting chance against ANY opponent, no matter how high ranked.

 Today’s feature matches are:

 M14 Endo (9–1) vs. M6 Tamawashi (7–3)—Endo is fighting to stay one win off the leat (depending on what Goeido does today), but Tamawashi is fighting for his kachi-koshi. Should be a good , hard fought match. (4:06)

 M5 Aoiyama (5–5) vs. M8 Kotoyuki (8–2)—Aoiyama has looked good most of this basho, but he faced a lot of the top-rankers in Week 1 and so he’s only 5–5 and still fighting for his kachi-koshi. Kotoyuki, on the other hand, has been sloppy and occasionally very lucky in his matches. I’d actually have to call this one a coin-toss. (5:12)

 M1 Okinoumi (7–3) vs. sekiwake Takarafuji (3–7)—Okinoumi is now out of the running for the yusho. That’s got to be disappointing after the way he was fighting in Week 1. But he can’t give in to despair yet . . . he still needs one more win to secure his kachi-koshi. Meanwhile, though, Takafuji is fighting to stave off make-koshi [majority of losses], so he’s going to be VERY focused and motivated. The okinoumi of Week 1 would win this match handily, the one from yesterday not so much. The question is, which Okinoumi is going to step onto the dohyo today? (8:30)

 Ozeki Kisenosato (8–2) vs. ozeki Goeido (10–0)—This is it . . . pretty much the most important match of the basho. If Kisenosato wins, he keeps his hopes for the yusho and promotion alive, and breaks the spell that Goeido seems to have cast. If Goeido wins, everyone with 2 or more losses falls from “contender” to “very long shot.” If you watch only one sumo match this basho . . . make it this one! (10:45)

 Ozeki Kotoshogiku (7–3) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (7–3)—Both of these rikishi are fighting to reach kachi-koshi when they really should have sewn it up already. They look weak and unfocused. The difference being, Kotoshogiku has been looking like a weak ozeki while Kakuryu has been looking like a weak yokozuna. This match will go to whichever rikishi is more motivated and energetic. (11:57)

 Yokozuna Harumafuji (9–1) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (8–2)—This is the second-most important match of the basho, though it may not seem so at first. The thing is, if Harumafuji wins he stays one behind the leader (or possibly tied with him, if Goeido loses today) keeping the pressure high. However, if Takayasu wins, then EVERYONE trailing Goeido will have at least two losses (with the possible exception of Endo). That means if Takayasu AND Goeido both win, Goeido will have a TWO MATCH lead over his closest opponents . . . and at this juncture that seems nearly unassailable. (12:27)

SUMO: Aki Basho 2016 (Day 10)

Day 10 of the Aki Basho brings us only a minor change to the leaderboard. Goeido continues his unbeaten streak and is the sole leader, but Okinoumi’s loss to Kaisei yesterday means that there are only two rikishi one off the pace—Harumafuji and Endo. Of course there’s a pretty big pack of rikishi with 7–2 records hanging in there, hoping for fortune to favor them with a few road bumps for the leaders. Chief among these are Kisenosato, Takayasu, and now Okinoumi.

As we close out the middle third of this basho, I have to say that like the 7–2 rikishi, I’m hoping for the leaders to stumble. I think that it’s pretty much a certainty that Endo will lose at least one more match (particularly because as a “reward” for having such a good record they’re going to start pairing him against higher ranked opponents as the week progresses). I also think that it’s highly likely that Goeido will lose at least one and probably two matches before the week is out. He’s doing very well, but he’s going to be facing four opponents who are just flat out better than him—Harumafuji, Kakuryu, Kisnosato, and Kotoshogiky. Goeido may well notch a couple of wins against that group, but I don’t think he’ll do better than 50/50. The big question is whether anyone in the tournament’s home stretch will manage to hand Harumafuji a second loss. If so, we’re poised to end up with a playoff of some sort on senshuraku [the final day] after the regular matches are through. There’s even a chance that it could be a playoff between four or more contenders, which would be a rare and exciting treat.

 All that needs to happen is for Harumafuji to beat Goeido, and for Kisenosato to beat them both. If they all win their other matches, that’ll on its own would make for a three-way playoff. If Okinoumi or Endo or Takayasu or any of the other currently 7–2 rikishi manage to win out, then they would be involved in the mix, too.

 Of course, there’s a lot sumo between here and there. And it seems entirely possible that either Goeido or Harumafuji can maintain their current streaks and just flat out win the basho. But I’m definitely rooting for the big playoff!

 Today’s feature matches include:

 J1 Ura (3–6) vs. M13 Toyohibiki (3–6)—Ura is a highly touted up-and-comer, who we’re likely to see promoted to the Makuuchi Division in 2017. He’ll be there in November IF he can get his basho turned around and secure kachi-koshi [majority of wins] for himself. Today he gets a one-day trip up to the big leagues to fill out the schedule, and I think you’ll agree that he’s quite exciting to watch. (0:06)

 M14 Endo (8–1) vs. M10 Sadanoumi (4–5)—Endo is only one win off the lead, and he’s fighting as well as he has in a year or more. Best to keep an eye on him. (2:23)

 M7 Ikioi (5–4) vs. M5 Mitakeumi (6–3)—Two popular rikishi, both still fighting to reach kachi-koshi. That spells excitement any way you slice it. (4:47)

 M2 Tochinoshin (2–7) vs. M3 Takanoiwa (3–6)—Two powerful rikishi, both fighting to stave off make-koshi [majority of losses]. That spells desperation. (6:35)

 Sekiwake Takayasu (7–2) vs. M1 Okinoumi (7–2)—At 7–2, neither one of these rikishi can afford another loss. Whoever wins here will reach kachi-koshi and still be in contention for a possible playoff for the yusho [tournament championship]. The loser is probably out of the hunt. (8:46)

 Ozeki Kisenosato (7–2) vs. ozeki Kotoshogiku (7–2)—Our first ozeki vs. ozeki match, and another matched pair of 7–2 records. As with the previous bout, the loser will most likely fall out of any hope of contending for the yusho. In Kisenosato’s case, that would also bring an end to his hopes of a yokozuna promotion. (10:02)

 Ozeki Goeido (9–0) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (4–5)—Our second ozeki vs. ozeki match, but not nearly as compelling. Really, given how they’re performing, I’d be surprised if Goeido doesn’t blow Terunofuji off the dohyo . . . but you never can tell what will happen. (11:40)

SUMO: Aki Basho 2016 (Day 9)

It’s Day 9 of the Aki Basho, kicking off Week 2 and the slow steady march toward senshuraku [the final day]. Ozeki Goeido remains atop the leaderboard as the only undefeated rikishi, with yokozuna Harumafuji, M1 Okinoumi, and M14 Endo trailing one win off the pace. Things should get interesting, though, as the top-ranked rikishi begin to have to face off against one another.

Okinoumi bounced back nicely from his Day 7 loss to Goeido. Yesterday he looked just as calm and focused as he has all week in his win over M5 Mitakeumi. Over the past few days, I think I’ve noticed the one new “tool” that has helped Okinoumi have the break-out performance he’s in the middle of. In the past, when pressed to the edge of the ring, Okinoumi used to dig his heels in and try to use power to resist his opponent . . . and fair enough—he’s among the biggest rikishi currently fighting. But unlike big, powerful rikishi like Tochinoshi, Terunofuji, and even Ichinojo, that was a strategy that didn’t work particularly well for him. He just didn’t seem to have the knack for turning the tables from that position. This basho, whenever Okinoumi’s feet get too close to the edge, he’s been quite nimble about sidestepping and brining the bout back to the center of the dohyo. This gives him a chance to make counter-maneuvers to put himself in a better position and, at the very least, means that his opponent must start his attack all over again having wasted the energy he put into the initial attempt. Plus it makes for very exciting matches (listen to how the crowd roars whenever he, or any other rikishi, manages to dodge trouble like that). I think the main lesson that Okinoumi seems to have taken to heart is that against most opponents, the longer the match goes on, the more the odds tip in his own favor.

 Ozeki Kisenosato started the basho in very shaky fashion, but over the past few days he’s looked stronger and stronger. Unfortunately, since he’s already got two losses, in order for him to be part of a potential yusho [tournament championship] race toward the end of the week, he needs a whole lot of things to go his way (as in for the four rikishi ahead of him to start knocking each other off) AND he needs to keep up his winning ways. His fate and the fate of his potential yokozuna promotion are not in his hands at the moment. The best he can do is put himself in a position to welcome opportunity should it knock again.

 Ozeki Terunofuji is having troubles, and that doesn’t bode well for him. He was just kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] last basho and unless he ups the quality of his sumo in the next couple of days, it’s looking like he’ll be kadoban again in November. Terunofuji is currently 4–4, which means he needs to win four of his remaining seven bouts to reach kachi-koshi [majority of wins]. However, five of those matches will be against other ozeki and yokozuna. And if he can only do 50/50 sumo against rank-and-file opponents, I don’t see how he can expect to do better than that against the best of the best.

 OSUNAARASHI UPDATE: One of my favorite rikishi, Osunaarashi, is down in the Juryo division this tournament, and ran into a bit of bad luck on Day 5 when he pulled a groin muscle. But he only took two days off and has come back to the competition despite the fact that he’s hobbling around in obvious pain. This is an aspect of sumo that I dislike, but there’s no getting around it. They are pretty much expected to battle on even when they’re injured. If Osunaarashi can get his kachi-koshi [majority of wins], perhaps he’ll take the rest of the basho off so that he has a better chance to be fully healed in November.

 With that, let’s have a look at today’s feature matches.

 M11 Sokokurai (3–5) vs. M14 Endo (7–1)—As one of the rikishi one win off the pace, Endo remains someone to watch. If he keeps on winning, we can expect him to soon start getting matched against opponents at the top of the maegashira ranks, or perhaps even a komusubi. Generally, I’d say that Sokokurai is a good match for Endo, but the M11 has been having a tough tournament. Still, you never know what will happen on any given day. (1:50)

 Komusubi Kaisei (1–7) vs. M1 Okinoumi (7–1)—One of the few matches Okinoumi has remaining against opponents who are ranked higher than he is. This is another match where it’s important that Okinoumi not give in to arrogance and take this win for granted. Kaisei has a pretty unspectacular record this tournament, but he is a very dangerous opponent. Still, if he keeps his wits about him, Okinoumi should win this one pretty handily. (7:25)

 Ozeki Goeido (8–0) vs. M5 Aoiyama (5–3)—A rikishi as big and powerful as Aoiyama is never an “easy match,” but on the banzuke [ranking sheet] at M5 he is likely the lowest ranked opponent that Goeido is going to face for the remainder of the Aki Basho. (8:30)

 Sekiwake Takayasu (6–2) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (4–4)—Takayasu is trying to prove that he’s worthy of becoming an ozeki, while Terunofuji is fighting to prove that he deserves to remain one. This was always going to be a marquee match for the day, but it’s even MORE worth watching because of some very unusual grappling that goes on between the two. (9:00)

 Ozeki Kisenosato (6–2) vs. M4 Chiyootori (1–7)—Kisenosato has to be ruing his two early losses—particularly his Day 3 loss to Tochinoshin’s uncharacteristic henka. If not for that, he’d be right in the middle of the hunt. All he can do now, though, is try to remain focused and keep winning. (10:25)

 Yokozuna Harumafuji (7–1) vs. komusubi Tochiozan (3–5)—Harumafuji is going for his kachi-koshi today, not to mention his chance to stay one win off the pace (or get a tie of the lead, if Goeido should stumble). Meanwhile, Tochiozan has to do something to turn his fortunes around. He still needs five more wins to get his kachi-koshi and retain his komusubi rank in November. A win over a yokozuna would be a great jump start, but he’s only ever managed eight wins over Harumafuji in their thirty match history. (11:50)

SUMO: Aki Basho 2016 Nakabi [The Middle Day] (Day 8)

It’s nakabi [the middle day] for the 2016 Aki Basho [Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament] and only one undefeated rikishi stands atop the leaderboard. That man is ozeki Goeido who, as it turns out, came into the tournament kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] if he didn’t achieve kachi-koshi [majority of wins]. Well, if he wins today, he’ll be 8–0 and have reached that pinnacle as quickly as it’s possible to . . . and he’ll remain in sole possession of the lead in the race for the yusho [tournament championship].

Even more surprising is the fact that only three rikishi [sumo wrestlers] remain one behind the leader with 6–1 records—yokozuna Harumafuji, M1 Okinoumi, and M14 Endo. The competition doesn’t usually narrow this much until the final few days . . . but I think we can count on things getting interesting in Week 2. That’s when the ozeki and yokozuna begin fighting against each other, and it should shake up the situation significantly.

Really, as extraordinary as Goeido’s performance seems in the moment, the truth is that this is what is generally EXPECTED of yokozuna and ozeki—they should dominate their opponents in Week 1, and in a tournament that is going according to plan, we should have FIVE undefeated rikishi at this juncture. What’s also unusual is that historically Goeido is one of the weaker ozeki (hence his kadoban status) and is one of the first to lose to an underdog. This is a tournament where everything seems to be topsy-turvy for the top ranked rikishi . . . but the result is an exciting, unpredictable tournament for the rest of us to watch.

After today’s matches there will be just one week remaining in the tournament. The big questions ahead for us are:

• Can Goeido keep up his winning ways, particularly in matches against fellow ozeki? His grand Week 1 performance will be for naught if he can’t be just as dominant against his peers (which he almost never is). Does he have it in him?
• Can Okinoumi get back on a winning track? He’s already faced all of the ozeki and yokozuna, so he has a relatively easier final week of matches. Does that make him in the best position of all when it comes to winning the tournament?
• Can Kisenosato keep winning and contend for the yusho? He’s still technically got a shot at a yokozuna promotion IF he wins this basho. Is that even a reasonable possibility at this point?
• Can Harumafuji keep calmly and quietly winning and take his second yusho in a row?
• And perhaps most pointedly . . . how many wins will be enough to win the Aki Basho? I’m still thinking that next Sunday we will have a rikishi with only 11 or 12  wins hoisting the Emperor’s Cup. So, despite how exciting that would be, would that make this a terrific basho or a sloppy, embarrassing one?

M9 Nishikigi (3–4) vs. M15 Tokushoryu (3–4)—A fine match between two mid-level rikishi. Really what this shows is how important Day 8 is. Whoever wins this match needs to go about 50/50 on his remaining matches to get kachi-koshi. Whoever loses can only afford two more losses in Week 2 or he’ll be make-koshi [majority of losses]. This match is the turning point, and you can tell by how hard they fight for it. (2:58)

M14 Endo (6–1) vs. M7 Ikioi (5–2)—Two fan favorite rikishi who both are in the midst of comebacks from injury, and both seem to be doing well this basho. Their ranks would seem to give a strong edge to Ikioi, but the truth is that they’re fighting about even these days. Should be a fun match. (3:35)

M9 Takekaze (4–3) vs. M6 Tamawashi (4–3)—All I’m going to say about this match is that it’s very strange. (4:32)

M1 Okinoumi (6–1) vs. M5 Mitakeumi (5–2)—Okinoumi has had a historically good first week, beating all the yokozuna and ozeki save one, and that would be the leader, Goeido. He put up a good fight yesterday, but didn’t manage to pull off the win. The question now is, can he get his head back in the game. If Okinoumi regains his focus and fights the way he did in Week 1, there’s no one left in his schedule who should beat him. If doubt or, worse, overconfidence creep into his mind, he could end up making kachi-koshi and not much more. Mitakeumi is a good measurement for where Okinoumi’s head is at. The M5 has a lot of skill, but still is a pretty raw talent. Okinoumi’s experience should carry the day here . . . but will it? (6:10)

Ozeki Goeido (7–0) vs. M1 Yoshikaze (3–4)—All credit to Goeido, he is having the best basho of his career and is in control of his own destiny. As long as he keeps winning, no one can catch him. However, the quality of his opponents is about to take a huge step up. For example, his opponent today may be ranked lower, but Yoshikaze has a 10–7 lead in their all-time head-to-head match-ups AND has looked strong in Week 1. As a fan, I think NOW is the time to decide whether you’re going to be rooting for Goeido to make a serious run at the yusho, or if you want to see him fall back and bring the rest of the pack into the hunt. (7:15)

Ozeki Kisenosato (5–2) vs. M4 Myogiryu (2–5)—Despite his two losses early in Week 1, Kisenosato is beginning to look more solid and focused. But is it coming too late for him and his hopes of a yokozuna promotion? There’s no way to tell. He just has to keep doing the best sumo he can and hoping that the quartet of rikishi ahead of him on the leaderboard all manage to stumble during Week 2. Today, he faces Myogiryu, who has fought hard and challenged some high-ranked opponents this week (including his spirited match against yokozuna Harumafuji yesterday), but so far has failed to bring home a decisive win. (8:33)

SUMO: Aki Basho 2016 (Day 7)

We’ve reached the middle weekend of the Aki Basho, and I think it’s safe to say that NO ONE would have predicted that THIS is how things would stand. There are two undefeated rikishi—ozeki Goeido (who also happens to be kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion]) and M1 Okinioumi (who is having the best tournament opening of his career). What’s more, there are only three rikishi immediately trailing with 5–1 records—yokozuna Harumafuji, M14 Endo, and M15 Kyokushuho. All the rest of the upper division, including all the other ozeki and yokozuna Kakuryu, have at least two losses already. (Bear in mind that one of the biggest oddities so far is that yokozuna Hakuho withdrew before the start of the tournament . . . something he hadn’t done since 2008 when he was still an ozeki.)

To make things even MORE exciting, the marquee match of the day will pit our two leaders against each other. That’s right, Goeido and Okinoumi go head to head today, which will leave us with a single leader come nakabi [the middle day]. And then the big match-ups between ozeki and yokozuna will start happening as we roll into Week 2. At the start of the basho I predicted that the eventual winner would have at least three losses, and right now I’m feeling pretty good about that prognostication.

Yokozuna Harumafuji remains the most likely rikishi to confound my prediction. He’s only lost one time so far, and he’s fighting very well. But he has been pushed very hard by a number of rank-and-file rikishi this week. True, he’s managed to overcome all threats, but he hasn’t seemed overwhelming, so there remains a chance that a couple of the ozeki can eke out wins when they face him. Most interesting will be Goeido, of course, and the yokozuna has a 20–9 lead in their all-time history. Still, 1-in-3 are pretty good odds against Harumafuji, so I don’t count Goeido out.

Also of interest, naturally, is ozeki Kisenosato and his seemingly eternal quest for a yokozuna promotion. His win yesterday was his 300th victory as an ozeki, which is both an amazing milestone and a colossal reminder that he’s been an ozeki for a loooong time without successfully advancing to sumo’s highest rank. After putting in stellar performances pretty much all year, he seems out of sorts this tournament, and he absolutely needs to win the whole shebang if he’s to have any hope of getting his promotion. That pretty much means going undefeated for the entirety of Week 2—a tall order considering how he’s performed so far this basho.

Really, all this says is that we’re looking ahead to a VERY exciting Week 2. But first let’s see what happens here in the middle weekend. Today’s highlight matches include:

M12 Gagamaru (3–3) vs. M7 Ikioi (4–2)—Georgian rikishi Gagamaru is just back from a one-basho stay in the Juryo Division, and not really doing that great in the lower Maegashira ranks. He’s going to have to do better in Week 2 or he’s in danger of being demoted right back down into Juryo. Meanwhile Ikioi is still struggling with back pains, which you can see most clearly at the end of matches that he loses by being thrown to the ground, when he’s obviously slow and awkward when it comes to standing up again. He wants to get his kachi-koshi [majority of wins] as quickly as possible so he doesn’t have to face demotion if he happens to tweak his back in an upcoming bout. (2:45)

Ozeki Kisenosato (4–2) vs. seikwake Takarafuji (3–3)—Kisenosato needs to keep his win streak going if he’s to have any hope at his long sought after promotion to yokozuna. Meanwhile, Takarafuji is still trying to prove himself at his new rank of sekiwake, and a win over an ozeki would be very helpful in that pursuit.  (7:20)

Ozeki Goeido (6–0) vs. M1 Okinoumi (6–0)—This is clearly the match of the day. The two undefeated rikishi going head-to-head. Some may wonder why the Kyokai [Sumo Association] scheduled such a big match so early in the basho, and the reasons are numerous. The most obvious one is that sumo is a very hierarchical sport, particularly when it comes to the schedules of the ozeki and yokozuna. These champion level rikishi always fight amongst themselves for the final days of a tournament, and that means there’s no room to push a match against a maegashira-level rikishi terribly late in the schedule. More importantly, though, I think the Kyokai wisely realizes that one of these rikishi is apt to stumble soon, and so pairing them up here really amounts to striking while the iron is still hot. Finally, they always are looking to put big-draw matches on the schedule during the middle weekend, when there’s a chance for big TV ratings . . . and this is as big a marquee pairing as we’re likely to see this tournament. (8:30)

Sekiwake Takayasu (4–2) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (4–2)—This match-up is a prime example of how perspectives and expectations change based on a rikishi’s rank. Both men have 4–2 records coming into the match, but the interpretation of those records couldn’t be more different. Takayasu is considered to be on a roll, with 4–2 being a terrific Week 1 record for a sekiwake (considered one of the toughest rankings in the sport), and there’s even talk that he’s in the middle of a run at a promotion to ozeki (having finished with an 11–4 record in July). On the other hand, Kakuryu is a yokozuna, and the expectation is that he will dominate all lower ranked challengers. The fact that he started the tournament with two straight losses to maegashira-level opponents just adds to the general opinion that he is a weak yokozuna, an opinion bolstered by the fact that Kakuryu rarely finishes a tournament with more than eleven wins. But while the perspectives are different, this match remains just as important to both rikishi, and you can expect an equally aggressive push to secure this fifth win from BOTH sides. (9:10)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (5–1) vs. M4 Myogiryu (2–4)—As I was saying above, Harumafuji has a strong record so far this tournament, but he’s been challenged hard by rikishi he really ought to dominate. Having the final match on a day with as big an audience as the Goeido vs. Okinoumi match is likely to draw is a good chance for him to prove that he’s in control and still the man to beat. Myogiryu has a very similar style to Harumafuji’s—he’s a smaller rikishi who relies on speed, balance, and tenacity to overwhelm bigger opponents. Ideally, though, the yokozuna should give him a lesson on how that kind of sumo is performed at a higher level. (9:45)